‘Fiona Tan’s ‘Ascent’

Fiona Tan, 'Ascent', Izu Photo Museum Japan / De Pont Museum Netherlands, 2016

An extended essay commissioned on the occasion of Fiona Tan’s new work, Ascent. It is published in the book Fiona Tan: Ascent, Izu Photo Museum / De Pont Museum, 2016.

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From the opening section of the essay:

The screen is dark. Out of the black, small still images emerge. Sound rises … ambient, crackling, inhabiting the images. It is a very particular designation for a very particular kind of film. Seventy-seven minutes of still photographs appearing, disappearing, dissolving and scrolling across the screen, complemented by sounds, music, and two scripted voices – one English, one Japanese. Ascent takes as its subject Mount Fuji, or more precisely, the shifting representations by which we think we have come to know Mount Fuji. Fiona Tan has made an imaginative journey around of the object of her fascination. Mount Fuji is not revealed directly or in its deepest mystery (not even photographs can do that) but it is conjured for us nonetheless. Tan has solicited, sifted and sorted all manner of images and set them in motion. It is not the literal motion of the cinematic image but the figural motion of a ‘photo-film’: a rich weave of associations that are personal, poetic, historical, scientific, anthropological, military, geological, political, literary and artistic. Ascent is a bowl for images, a vortex of images, with Mount Fuji at its centre.

Early in the film we hear these words, spoken by ‘Mary’:

Emptiness or void, you explained patiently, never has negative connotations in the Japanese language. Just like the shining bamboo, a void has the potential to be filled. In Japanese the word for void is utsuro. But if you change the last syllable to ‘wa’, the word becomes utsuwa, meaning bowl. A bowl can receive and hold some very important things; a bowl for rice, a bowl for tea.

We are then shown an image of the crater of Mount Fuji and we hear the male voice of ‘Hiroshi’, speaking in Japanese:

‘If the ending is changed to ‘roi’, the word then becomes utsuroi – transience, a word which represents a concept of time rather than of space.’

By these words Ascent prepares us for what is to come: a sliding in and out of history and memory, facts and impressions; an invitation to exchange space for time, or at least to think about the possibility of such an exchange. Mount Fuji is pictured over and over, but  somehow it remains elusive. It is as if the real thing was in another place, another time. Or perhaps it is right there, but unknowable.

* * *

There are many ways to get to Mount Fuji. Fiona Tan has visited Japan several times, but she has constructed her film in her studio, in Amsterdam. If we are dealing with images, and in particular photographic images that can travel on our behalf, we could reasonably begin anywhere. Let us go via Paris. Here is Roland Barthes:

Maupassant often lunched in the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, though he didn’t care for the food: “It’s the only place in Paris,” he used to say, “where I don’t have to see it.” And it’s true that you must take endless precautions, in Paris, not to see the Eiffel Tower; whatever the season, through mist and cloud, on overcast days or in sunshine, in rain – wherever you are, whatever the landscape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, the Tower is there, incorporated into daily life until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute, determined merely to persist, like a rock or the river, it is as literal as a phenomenon of Nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity but whose existence is incontestable.

What Barthes describes of the Eiffel Tower holds at least equally true of Mount Fuji, the strato-volcano on Japan’s Honshu Island. It is the nation’s highest peak and on a clear day it can be seen from Tokyo, sixty miles to its northeast. It is there, always there, ‘until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute’. Like the Eiffel Tower, the only way to make the mountain disappear from view, is to climb it. But unlike the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji really is a phenomenon of Nature.

As a Parisian, Barthes was pondering the most obvious of Parisian subjects. Mount Fuji could well be the most obvious of Japanese subjects. But when the nimble mind of an artist or writer resolves to contemplate the overly familiar we may feel a kind of disarming excitement. In 2001, the British artist Victor Burgin wrote:

I am in Barcelona. I find the genius of the place, which for me is where my internal world and the social and historical reality of the city intersect, in Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion for the 1929 International Exhibition. Embarrassing, as if I had gone to Paris and discovered the Eiffel Tower. I must nevertheless accept the fact that the pavilion haunts me. It remains to be seen why.

We must not fear the obvious, or be embarrassed by it, especially if it haunts us. A cliché may well be a truth worn out by use, but it is better to accept it and find one’s own relation to it, find the intersection of one’s internal world and the external realities.

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